PLATO: 'You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.'
This quote from Plato sums up my experience as acting ombudsperson over the past two months (in this case, 'acting' means that I'm spending a year gaining lots of experience so we can structure the role of a future permanent ombudsperson). I feel a lot of pressure to make a good impression, do things right and immediately 'hit the mark'. It's been an exciting time. For the first few days, I had difficulty settling down in my new office. I'm an independent person, which means I'm also a self-starter who wants to figure everything out herself. The first order of business was communication, and getting the website in order. Next, it was time to think about a framework and some basic starting points for my work: what can people expect from me; what can and can't I do for them?
Obviously, I also had to get to know everyone: the deans, the directors operations, service unit directors. Confidential advisers, PhD candidates and members of the representative advisory bodies. I had some really enjoyable and inspiring conversations, and got quite a workout in the process. I occasionally had to travel between appointments at the Science Park, ACTA and Roeterseiland in a single day, which involved quite a lot of cycling. Obviously, finding the faculties and units and making my way to the right floors and rooms was quite challenging for me, with my limited spatial orientation skills. Sometimes, I'd have to cycle through the rain, so I'd arrive with a wet coat and dripping hair. I'd hear that nagging little voice in my head say: 'Oh, so that's the new ombudswoman is it?'
Anyway, with regard to my role as ombudsperson, people have had little trouble finding my office. In many cases, I simply have to refer people to the right party, but I also get visits about the same problems. These can be broader issues, which sometimes involve more people than just those who visit my office.
I get questions and reports about unsafe work atmospheres where people feel scared and anxious and about undesirable behaviour by lecturers or colleagues, or from people being bullied to the point where they want to leave and people who aren't being heard despite having spoken out about a bad situation for a long time.
My job is to find solutions to these problems. The people who come to me aren't looking to win an argument or expose or bring charges against anyone. They simply want to improve their situation: 'my job could be great, if only we didn't have this horrible atmosphere in the office'. People need whatever is bothering them to stop, and want to make sure those behaviours aren't normalised. They want the organisation to listen to their problem, take it seriously and do something about it.
As I've already found, my independent position allows me to get things out in the open. After all, as an ombudsperson, I 'belong' to everyone, not just the people who come in to report something. From the start, I make it clear that I'm not there for small talk, so why not just spit it out? I try to involve all the parties, offer advice and nudge everyone in the right direction. My recommendations aren't free of obligation – I refer to them as 'compelling advice' – which means I have the authority to speed things up where necessary. If people keep beating around the bush, you need someone to rip that band-aid off. The people I deal with are strong personalities. They're extremely capable and have achieved a lot. I adopt a firmly neutral stance. You're OK, and so am I. I feel comfortable in that role.
If there's something you want to discuss, don't hesitate to get in touch!
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